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Penn State Researchers Find High COVID-19 Levels In White-Tailed Deer

A group of Penn State researchers from the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, the Huck Institute of Life Sciences, and the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory recently had their work featured in The New York Times.

Penn State scientists worked with wildlife officials in Iowa to study the white-tailed deer population in the state of Iowa from April to December of 2020. At one point in the study, more than 80% of white-tailed deer that were tested were identified to have been infected with COVID-19. This surge came at a time where the infection rate in humans was rising, indicating that the deer are likely contracting the virus from humans and then spreading it between one another.

Researchers haven’t been able to identify the exact mechanism that caused spillover from humans to the deer. However, through genetic sequencing, they were able to compare samples from the deer with samples of the virus from humans, which verifies that this is where the overlap occurred.

With the population of white-tailed deer in North America being so large, the species may serve as a place for COVID-19 to mutate and spill back over to humans, likely making the pandemic even harder to control.

With various hunting seasons either ongoing or coming up, researchers wanted to make their findings available to the public. Hunters should know to be cautious when handling deer to avoid potential transmission of COVID-19.

Though researchers studied only white-tailed deer in Iowa, Dr. Vivek Kapur of the Department of Animal Science said there’s no reason that their discoveries can’t be extrapolated to other states that are home to deer.

For now, a formal study has not been published in an academic journal. Last week, the research findings were verified by the National Veterinary Services Laboratories. A preliminary report of the results can be read here.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee Yocum is a sophomore in the Schreyer Honors College studying Immunology and Infectious Disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is a coffee addict, loves Taylor Swift, and can't wait to go to a concert again. Any questions can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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